Can you learn a language in 3 months?
To answer that question I decided to open one of my favorite books: The 4-Hour Workweek.
Tim Ferriss is the author of The 4-Hour Workweek and has achieved enormous success and it explains how you can follow in their footsteps.
What mainly intrigued me about this book was the author. Ferriss prides himself on his ability to speak 7 languages and has succeeded in teaching himself foreign languages. He wrote about this exciting topic in a blog post called “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months”. He went even further when he wrote “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour”. For those of you who don’t have time to read these articles yourself, I will try to summarize them in my own words—adding a few of my own thoughts on the subject. So how long does it take to learn a language? The answer is that if you do it right, you can do it in three months :).
Can You Learn a Language in 3 Months? It Depends on Your Priorities
It may be possible to understand 90% of a language in 3 months, but to understand 95% could take 3 years. To become completely fluent certainly takes work. It is therefore better to focus first on the 20% that will account for 80% of the result (Yes, this brings us back to that famous Pareto law).
Learn vocabulary based on frequency of use
Did you know that the 100 most common French words make up half of all French texts?
You should therefore start by learning vocabulary based on frequency of use (give priority to the most common words), but note that frequency of use is not the same in speech as it is in writing. Click on the following link to view the lists of the most common words in French, Spanish and German. You can also use our applications, which will teach you the most useful vocabulary first (with audio pronunciations).
Once you’ve learned the basics, you can specialize your vocabulary to specific subject fields that you will likely to want to learn.
For example, if you’re wondering how long it takes to learn a language for business trips, it would be best to focus on vocabulary that is travel-related (transportation, accommodation, dining …) and business-related (negotiation, meetings, presentations …).
Learn the Most Common Grammatical Forms First
Like vocabulary, certain grammatical forms are more common than others. It’s not necessary to learn every form of every conjugation in existence right away.
For example, I remember studying long lists of irregular verbs in my very first English courses. At that time, what use to me was the verb balayer (sweep, swept, swept), not to mention its form in the simple past or its past participle. (I hope you don’t think that I never clean my house!)
To get your point across, the present tense will suffice in the beginning. You can always find ways around using the future and past tenses. All you need to learn are some standard phrases that can be deconstructed and that apply in 80% of cases. To understand a foreign language, you really don’t need to know all the forms and conjugations as long as you know the root (the radical).
By learning things on a need-to-know basis, you’ll get the best results in a very short time.
It’s a well-known fact that rapid results give people the motivation they need to continue learning. But if that’s not enough …
Learn Interesting Material
Rapid progress will motivate you, but it’s even more important to be interested in the content and the learning material. Since the learning machine from the Matrix does not yet exist, we need a review phase. This phase can be particularly boring if your learning method is boring! Don’t read things that you wouldn’t read in your mother tongue. Give yourself a language-learning experience that allows you to learn more about subjects that interest you.
For example, if you never read the newspaper, don’t learn a language by reading newspaper articles. Instead, try to find reading material on subjects that you’re interested in (if you love turtles, you should read articles about turtles!).
For listening comprehension, I strongly recommend that you watch films, television series or documentaries in their original version with or without subtitles. It’s fun and effective!
There are also special podcasts for learning languages.
Learn and Review With an Effective Method
Language-learning methods should allow you to memorize vocabulary and phrases successfully with little revision and in as little time possible. A lot of research has been conducted on memorization, and very effective memorization techniques exist of which many people are unaware.
For example, the spaced repetition system is a highly effective memorization technique. It is used a lot by people learning so-called “difficult” languages (Japanese, Chinese) or by medical students, for instance. However, it also works very well for simpler languages. If you’d like to find out how it works, read this article.
Drawing on these principles, I developed an application for iPhones and Android phones with the help of language professors. To learn more, please read this presentation on MosaLingua applications.
To sum up the answer to how long does it takes to learn a language:
– to learn the most common vocabulary (with audio pronunciations);
– to learn some standard phrases;
– to use effective memorization techniques; and
– to use learning material that interests you (television series/films in their original version with subtitles for listening comprehension, and books and magazines for reading comprehension).
At this stage, you will learn the basics to get by. Afterwards, the fastest way to improve your oral communication skills is to immerse yourself in a country that speaks the language you are studying.
The principles laid out in this article may seem obvious, but compare them to the utter lack of effectiveness in learning a language in an academic environment.
If you enjoyed this article on how long does it take to learn a language, I have even more articles on learning methods, memorization and neuroscience.
Please don’t hesitate to leave us a comment to tell us what you think!
How to Learn a Language Quickly (Video)
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